Redefining What You Are…
The Spiritual Work of Our Generation
One of the most well-known revolutionary statements made by the Lubavitcher Rebbe was that the spiritual task of berurim, of elevating the fallen sparks of holiness, has been completed. There has been a tremendous amount written about how the “elevation of fallen sparks” translates into day-to-day activity. The key to understanding this concept is noting that the sparks are associated only with the emotive and habitual realms of the psyche, i.e., with the sefirot from knowledge to kingdom, knowledge acting as the bridge between the intellect and the emotions.1 What this means is that the innate psychological problems that every person faces are limited to those two realms: emotions and behavior. What the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s statement translates into is the following:
The spiritual work of individuals in all the generations preceding our own was to rectify their emotions and habits. All the hardships and conflict that a person went through in life, all the sweat put into livelihood and raising children, all of the energy spent on performing G-d’s will, was meant to rebuild and elevate the emotions and habits. A rectified person was thus one who had engaged in curbing negative emotions (like hatred, fear, and cruelty) and who had toiled hard to create good life habits. Incidentally, the habitual realm includes the regularity of Halachah, the day-to-day performance of the Torah’s commandments that hallmarks the life of a Jew.
But in our generation, this task has ended. Does this mean that we are all rectified individuals, all enjoying a perfect emotional response to every situation and benefiting from wonderful habits!? The contrary would seem to be the case. There has probably never been a generation with so much angst and anxiety. People are simply at a loss in dealing with themselves, with their relationships, and with the world in general. So what does it mean to say “this task has ended?”
The answer lies in understanding that human history goes through stages. At each stage a different type of task is undertaken. But, this does not necessarily mean that the previous task was completed. It just means that now is the time for something else to occupy our time and our consciousness. You can think about it as the type of change that occurs between Friday and the beginning of Shabbat just before sundown on Friday. Friday is another weekday. During the day we do weekday work. We go to work (or school), cook, clean, wash, etc. But, the moment that Shabbat begins all the weekday work stops. Does it mean that we have objectively finished all of our work? Does this halt to the weekdays mean that come Motza’ei Shabbat (the end of the Shabbat) we will be free of work forever—that we have finished working altogether? Of course not. Come the beginning of next week we will be faced with much of the same type of work that we stopped when Shabbat began. In that sense, our work is not done “forever.” Nonetheless, the feeling we must have during Shabbat is one of: “all my work has been completed.”2 The feeling should be one of having completed, because otherwise, it will be impossible to engage in the special work that is part of the Shabbat: prayer, the study of Torah, meals with one’s family, etc. What happens if you happen to remember how much work is still left to be done, and how difficult the next week is going to be? You push the thought to the back of your mind and ignore it, or better yet, you start singing a Shabbat melody and forget about it even more quickly. The purpose of Shabbat is not to think weekday thoughts about weekday tasks. It is to engage, fully, in the special spiritual work dedicated to the Shabbat.
In a similar manner, though the task of the previous generation centered on rectifying the emotional and habitual realms of the psyche—the task of berurim, of clarifying the lower sefirot—our spiritual work centers elsewhere, in the mind—the abode of the highersefirot, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Unlike the Shabbat, when weekday work is forbidden, working with the emotions and habits unto themselves is not forbidden, it is simply not timely, and less effective than focusing on the mind. What then should we do with the sad and sorry state of our emotions? We will return in a moment to discuss this question.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s statement points the way for real change in our lives. Real change is possible only by focusing on the intellectual realm. In the language of Chassidut this is called “ascending to the work of Chabad” (Chabad being the Hebrew acronym for the three intellectual sefirot: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge). The way of Chassidut teaches that we should be fully occupied with comprehending the Divine wisdom in the Torah, without worrying about how this will affect our emotive and habitual realms. In fact, to use an analogy: the wisdom of the Torah should affect the emotive and habitual realms of the psyche in the same way that the soul gives life to the body. There is no direct connection, as spirit and matter are total opposites. Nonetheless, the soul “inspires” the actions of the body. Engaging in the study of the Torah and its inner wisdom is meant to “inspire” our emotions and habits in a way that is far more effective than the direct approach of “shaping, prodding, and pronging” them. Each time we add in our understanding of the Torah, we are actually growing closer to the Almighty, the true source of all healing, rectification, and solace.3
The purpose of our current stage of history, the times of Mashiach (yemot haMashiach) is to focus on the intellect, which is symbolized in the Torah (as explained in Chassidut) as the conquering of the lands of the Kaini, Knizi, and Kadmoni, which corresponds to the sefirot of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.
Focusing on the intellect (at the initial expense of the emotional and habitual) is one of the many meanings of the Tanya’s description of the way of Chassidut as “a longer, shorter path.” It seems that to rectify the emotions you need to go to a psychologist. But, Chassidut reveals that that is really a shorter path which turns out to be very long, in fact, usually leaving your emotions in their original non-rectified state. The seemingly longer path focuses on the inner wisdom of the Torah, as it is revealed in Kabbalah and Chassidut, while ignoring the emotional realm. But, in reality, though initially roundabout, this path actually rectifies the emotions and habits completely, making it ultimately “the shorter path.”
Said another way: focusing on the intellect introduces one to a world of abstract and universal concepts, which do not seem related at all to one’s personal problems. The most common criticism of in-depth study of Kabbalah and Chassidut, is “this is all too theoretical.”4 The truth is that without the theoretical intellectual realm no real change will ever occur. True, a person can learn how to overcome and deal with his or her personal problems. But, the constant source of positive and healing energy is in the mind, which must be turned-on through its own language and universal concepts.
* * *
So what can we do in the meantime with our broken hearts and habits? They should be treated in the same way as the untimely thoughts about business or work are treated on Shabbat. If a person is actively engaged in the unique spiritual tasks of the Shabbat, then these thoughts will likely not even rise to our consciousness. However, if they do, if there are moments of “self-pity” and pain about them, then Chassidut stresses the importance of picking oneself up and deriving strength from a simple and sincere attitude. These—simplicity and sincerity—are the hallmarks of true lowliness. Experiencing lowliness in the right way, as discussed in previous chapters, allows us to accept our shortcoming and failures, acknowledging that we are not rectified individuals (yet), and that without the Almighty’s help, we would not be successful in anything that we undertake. Nonetheless, that the Almighty has chosen us for the tasks that He has, that we are aware of the stage in history that humanity is currently in, and that we are privileged to study the inner wisdom of the Torah, regardless of our broken state, all these are reason for straightforward joy and happiness and thanksgiving to G-d.
More than any other figure in Chassidut, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov focuses on learning how to simply “be happy.” His prayers and teachings go hand in hand with the teachings of the Rebbe’s of Chabad, by showing us how to pick ourselves up when we have for whatever reason lost our ability to engage in the true spiritual task of our times: the study of Kabbalah and Chassidut. The teachings of Chabad, represent the fully mature individual who has gone beyond and made the complete transition to the realm of the intellect. Rebbe Nachman’s teachings serve to pick us when we fall back into our immature “child within” that needs solace and comfort.
1. As noted elsewhere the ten sefirot and the human psyche divide into three distinct realms:
The sefirah of crown reflects the super-consciousness, which hovers above the psyche. The sefirah of kingdom reflects the psyche’s contact with its surrounding environment.
2. Mechilta and Rashi on Exodus 20:9. Shulchan Aruch 306:8. Shulchan Aruch Harav ibid.21:.
3. In fact, ultimately, it is only the body itself that can truly be inspired by the essence of the Almighty, at which time, as explained in Chassidut: “the soul will receive [Divinity] from the body!”
4. Which is one reason why we are translating this article!